Even Native Speakers Make Mistakes

What is the goal of language learning?  Well, that’s a question for another day.  However, I will say that I’ve noticed many of my students seem obsessed with perfection in their language learning.  They get frustrated when they make mistakes and spend hours studying in an attempt to rid their language of all mistakes.  It might come as a surprise to some of them to learn that even native speakers make mistakes too.

Whenever I taught a certain grammar point, if it was one that I had recognized as a common mistake made by native speakers, I always informed my students of this.  My intention was to help them relax a bit and realize that even native speakers (those they idolize in their language learning) make mistakes too and that, if they make this particular mistake, they will be understood too.  In fact, sometimes speaking properly comes across as being uptight or thinking you’re better than others, showing off your education, etc.  That’s not to say I encourage language students to make mistakes, and often people who speak a second language speak it better than native speakers, at least in the sense that they have the correct grammar; they may not necessarily sound like a native speaker.

Then again, it might be helpful to teach students such mistakes if they really want to speak like a native speaker.  Making such mistakes and introducing slang that is based on grammatical errors could help students when interacting with other native speakers.  But, again, that’s a question for another day.

Anyway, I got to wondering why native speakers make these mistakes.  Of course, one possible reason is lack of education.  Native speakers don’t grow up learning their language in an academic setting; they just seem to pick it up.  Therefore, many probably don’t even know that they’re making a mistake.  This would then mean that they’re making an error, not a mistake, because they haven’t yet learned what is correct.

The issue of mistakes/errors is also closely linked to the issue of fluency which I previously discussed.  Does making mistakes or having errors mean you’re not fluent?  In the school where I worked the emphasis was on communication, not perfection.  Many people aren’t “fluent” in a language and can still communicate effectively and get their point across.  Some might argue that even native speakers make numerous errors and are still understood perfectly well and no one would think that they’re not a native speaker. 

Problems might come when such errors impede communication and understanding.  I’ve noticed that most of these problems occur in written English as opposed to spoken English.  Most of these problems are related to spelling or involve words that are similar but have different meanings.  In spoken English, the most popular mistakes I’ve come across are a tendency to say “there is” plus a plural instead of “there are” and using “good” instead of “well.”  Due to the fact that most people don’t know that it’s an error, there is often no misunderstanding.  Those who do know it’s an error also understand.  So is this really a problem?

I also got to thinking about other languages.  Do they also have such mistakes?  In my studies of Russian I’ve come across some technical mistakes that I’ve heard spoken in everyday Russian.  Are the reasons for this the same?  Do all languages have this trait?  Why do we teach perfect grammar instead of the true, spoken language? Should we adapt grammar rules to accommodate this?

Are there easy answers to these questions?  I highly doubt it.  But they’re questions I can’t help but ask find myself wondering about.  And I continue to be fascinated by all aspects of language learning…  For those who find these mistakes interesting, enjoy studying English grammar and want to improve their own English, here are several links to common English errors:

Grammar Errors Made by Native Speakers
Listverse: 10 Common English Language Errors
Listverse: Another 10 Common English Errors
Common Mistakes and Confusing Words in English


2 Responses to Even Native Speakers Make Mistakes

  1. wachsmuth.andre@gmx.de says:

    One things that has to be remembered is that grammar, which is part of linguistics, is the science of (natural) languages, just as physics is the science of the inanimate world, and biology of the animated world. The way science works is that one observers the real world, and then tries to explains it, and not the other way around.

    As long as many native speakers use it, it is, by definition, “correct,” and if your (I don’t mean you personally) pet-grammar can’t explain it, so much the worse for your theory, it is wrong. Which is how linguistics you can find in academic journals works.

    Also, one cannot expect the grammar of a language and its rules to be more logical than the people who speak it are.

    Grammar did not just spring into existence, there was a time when there was language, but not grammar, and it was a gradual development, starting with simple explanation of why we say something like this and that. A great deal of research has been conducted done (and is being done) to produce the current grammatical framework that can be used to analyze different languages such as French, Italian, German or English.

    Now that we’ve got the grammatical apparatus, and now that many people are aware of it, makes it possible that the theory influences that which it set out to describe, which would be impossible with physics, chemistry or biology.

    Yet one must draw a distinction between school or textbook grammar, which is often dumbed down, and state-of-the art linguistics. (If you wish to talk seriously about English (grammar), you will need some understanding of Indo-European.)

    I’m currently studying Japanese (in Germany), and here, this phenomenon is particularly striking; the difference between how Japanese is taught in German or English textbooks and real Japanese linguistics, as found in “A historical grammar of Japanese” for example, is like day and night.

    My guess is that “You can’t talk like this, grammar says..” is just an instance insisting what has been there from your birth or what you’ve been taught must be correct, ie the tendency of resisting change.

    As far as teaching grammar is concerned, I think that ideally, people should learn a second language the way they learned their native tonge, ie by exposure.

    Grammar should only be taught to the extent that it helps the learning process (which is why textbook grammar is often dumed down) – the ultimate goal is to conform to the standard set by native speakers.

    Linguistics and grammar is pretty interesting in its own right, and I find it interesting. but don’t confuse a theory of the real world with the real world itself – a discus-thrower does not need not to be familiar with aerodynamic equations.

  2. Ueritom says:

    Great content! In Portuguese there lots and lots of examples of mistakes mades by natives. And people who study English care a lot about avoiding mistakes and being perfect, as you mentioned.

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